You could say Dr Gary Stager’s name is synonymous with the idea of ‘learning-by-doing’.
One of the of the world’s leading experts and advocates for computer programming, robotics and the maker movement, Stager is excited about the deep learning experiences on offer for students today.
Stager penned the book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, with co-author Sylvia Libow Martinez in 2013.
Now, more than three years after its release, Stager has seen the maker movement grow to the point where Maker Faires are being held around the world, with those in New York, Shenzhen, London and Rome attracting well over 100,000 attendees.
According to Stager, it’s a great time to be a teacher.
“The thing that’s exciting about [the maker movement] is how it’s resonated with teachers that have always wanted to create a wide variety of rich experiences for their students,” he says.
“I think in a lot of cases, the political interest in jobs or STEM skills, or revitalizing the manufacturing sector, or whatever motivation that has drawn attention to this and made it accessible to schools, is a way for teachers to create the lovely kinds of personal learning environments that they’ve always dreamed of, and had taken away from them.
“So what’s excited me the most is that it’s given a lot of teachers permission, once again, to be creative, to embrace and respect the ingenuity … of children.”
Stager has been a tech head for years, leading professional development in the world’s ﬁrst laptop schools as far back as 1990.
He says the reason behind his fascination with all things tech, is because it extends the range and breadth of projects that are possible.
“It’s a way of making progressive educational principles, making the school more learner-centered … less top-down, less autocratic.”
Stager and Libow Martinez’s book named three main categories of game changers in educational technology.
The ﬁrst one being fabrication, that is, the ability to make things that don’t just live on paper or on the screen.
Stager points to 3D printing as an example, but says we have a long way to go in this domain.
“[3D printing] has been the most hyped and has delivered the least in classrooms, for any variety of, mostly technical reasons, it’s still in its infancy,” Stager says.
“But the real power of that has never been about having every Year 7 make identical Star Wars key chains.”
The power, Stager says, lies with the ability for students to make the thing they need to solve their problem.
The second category of game changer identiﬁed is the idea you can add intelligence to everyday objects.
“So we make art pieces that interact with the environment, footy jumpers that have directional signals that indicate you’re turning on a bicycle, or a necklace that alerts you when your least favourite teacher is approaching,” Stager quips.
“And that’s probably the richest domain of technological innovation game changers.”
The third, Stager says, is computer programming.
“Not just because an hour of code might make you more employable, because it gives you agency over increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world.”
Stager points to pre-eminent mathematician and scientist Stephen Wolfram’s belief that almost every domain in the future will have a computational version or aspect to it.
“So it will be computational biologists and computational sociologists,” Stager says.
“So that’s having a real impact and I view programming as the new rebel art, because it gives kids agency over their world.”
Another area in which technology has the capacity to bend all of the rules, is the area of gender stereotypes.
“People are terribly agitated about the issue of female representation in STEM,” Stager says.
“In my experience, whenever I bring drones into a classroom, girls will knock the boys over to get at them.”
“By the same token, it’s been really exciting to see boys falling in love with the sewing machine.”
“Because, if they want to make with material, if they want to have wearable computers, the sewing machine is a key piece of technology that they’ve never had access to either.”
Stager says it’s important to let go of stereotypes and prejudices to allow students to embrace educational technology, regardless of gender.
“If you don’t impose gender on it and if we look at the capability of kids as unknown, but recognising that they’re competent, then they’ll go in directions that we could never have imagined.”
Stager says whenever educators ask him for advice on implementing some of these game changing technologies in the classroom, he always comes back to one mantra, ‘less us, more them’.
“Anytime you think you should intervene on behalf of educational transaction, it’s worth asking the question, ‘is there less that I could do and more that they could do?’,” he says.
“I’m obsessed by the question of ‘what’s the smallest seed I can plant, that generates the largest blossom, the most beautiful garden?”
Another piece of advice Stager offers, is don’t get tied up in assessment.
“I was having a conversation with someone at one of the major tech ﬁrms … and he said, ‘our number one priority has to be helping teachers learn how to assess this stuff’.
“I said ‘you’re wrong’, and then I needed an argument,” Stager says.
“My argument was as such, ‘if I walked into any primary teacher’s classroom anywhere in the world and said can you show me an example of writing by a child that’s below grade level, that’s on grade level, that’s advanced, any decent teacher could do so within seconds.
“Now why is that possible? It’s possible because they’ve looked at thousands of pieces of kids’ writing over many years.
Stager admits that after working in the profession for almost 35 years, he has “no freaking idea,” what a child is capable of achieving in the maker space, or what would happen if we taught programming from P to 12.
“And given that none of us know what the kid is capable of, it’s impossible to assess them,” he says.
“And when we behave as if we have a crystal ball, and we create these … documents, 400 pages of meaningless tables … they’re always ridiculous, because they’re not rooted in experience.”
The magic of making, according to Stager, lies in the process, not in the grades on an end of year report.
“The reason why the maker movement matters, is because knowledge is a consequence of experience and we’re allowing kids to have richer, deeper experiences than ever would have been possible before.”